I have been sitting here for the past five minutes, trying to decide how the hell to go about reviewing Rokuroku: The Promise of the Witch, now showing at Fantasia 2018. And I still don’t know how I feel. Did I like it? Hate it? Was I impressed by its audacity, or confused by its attempt to unify a totally un-unified narrative through a (very odd) framing story introduced well into the third act? Or maybe it’s really all of these things together; maybe there’s no justifying this film I actually quite liked, in many ways, and know doesn’t work at all. But, goddamn, it’s quite a ride.
The plot of Rokuroku, such as it is, surrounds the sudden appearance of a huge hotel where there wasn’t a hotel, the home of a witch-demon creature that constantly changes her shape and embarks on a series of mayhem-laden vignettes in which she consumes, cuts up, drowns, and terrifies to death a number of hapless Japanese people seemingly just minding their own business. There’s the artist who becomes obsessed with the witch’s most human form, the fisherman who looks through a knot in a piece of wood and witnesses her coming closer, the businesswoman spying on her late at night, the little girl who takes her baby carriage. Interspersed within these vignettes are an elderly man, who is always seeing things that are maybe not there, his daughter, and granddaughter, whose story will occupy much of the third act. Who is this witch? Why has she come back? What does she want? And are those…hands for teeth?
Rokuroku has its foundations in Japanese ghost stories and folklore, filtered through a visual and artistic sensibility that brought us films like House, to which it bears a significant resemblance. The wild color scheme and scenes of sudden, unrestrained violence, pushed to such a grotesque extent that they become humorous, can feel a little jarring, but there’s a sense of fun throughout that undercuts any attempt to push this into a “serious horror” category. The story isn’t intended to be serious, but to indulge in an edgy weirdness that sometimes hangs together, sometimes slips off into incoherency. The vignettes are fun, energetic little asides, at times legitimately frightening, and at times simply funny, as the movie pieces together the narrative of the witch and her haunted hotel.
The weakest link in Rokuroku is the attempt to create a through narrative to unite all the different vignettes into a more coherent whole. Interspersed throughout the film are bits of the story of two former friends who meet again after several years. As more is revealed about their relationship, the film attempts to focus in on the two characters and the sometimes tangential connections they have with the people in the other vignettes. But this portion of the narrative falls short, both in uniting the narrative and in providing a part of an explanation for the witch’s presence. To be honest, I would have preferred that Rokuroko simply relied on the strength of the barely connected vignettes for its entertainment, which are entertaining in their surrealism and imagery, and avoided altogether attempts to explain further.
The comparison to Obayashi’s 1977 cult film House is apt; Rokuroku has a similar surrealist sensibility, playing with demonic imagery and humor to its fullest extent. The grotesque hotel that the witch inhabits, the evocation of the witch herself as a 19th century lady, a demonic schoolgirl, and a pulsating sea creature, among others, all harken back to Japanese horror filmmaking and artistic imagery. It’s weird and difficult to categorize, but it’s very compelling. Despite its pitfalls, Rokuroku is a fun piece of Japanese horror, the sort of film you watch with your mouth slightly open. Don’t expect a coherent structure or payoff. Go into this film as though it’s an amusement park funhouse, and enjoy the experience.
Rokuroku: The Promise of the Witch shows at Fantasia 2018 on July 21 and 31.
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